Saturday, December 28, 2013

Touch of Grace

"You start getting itchy around your 19th year. It'll get better." These words emanated from the mouth of an elementary school teacher I met at a party yesterday, an African American woman who is currently in year 31 of her career as an educator.  An individual with an imposing frame to match her big personality, she went on to explain some plans she has for her post-retirement career.  I won't elaborate on her entire idea, but, in a nutshell,  it involves her serving as a well-paid liaison between parents and their children's teachers and tutors.  

There is a woman in my neighborhood who retired after a similarly long stint in the classroom as a high school English teacher. She has now published a veritable slew of novels under the pseudonym Regina Jeffers.  She began by writing and self-publishing several Jane Austen knock-offs and gained some attention for her work--she was even invited to speak about Jane Austen at the Smithsonian Institution.  Jeffers has now published at least five works that are part of an original series of Regency romances.  During a trip to my local used book store the other day, I picked up one of these entitled A Touch of Grace.  The book offered a merry romp--replete with kidnappings, disguised identities, and a group of men who are the Green Berets of their day.  While not exactly literature characterized by gravitas, the book impressed me with the writer's imagination and wild creativity.  

While our society worships youthful achievement, the stories of these two women are not uncommon.  An awful lot of people do not retire to go hit golf balls in the desert or to simply sit and knit by the fire. I had to remember that fact the other day when I heard a broadcaster on NPR talking to a philosopher who has come up with a theory of a "peak year."  The philosopher did not explain his notion in depth, but his basic assertion is that individuals have a year when all sorts of disparate elements come into play and, as  a result, he or she will attain some type of superior achievement.  His conclusion:  It's all downhill after that. 

I was a bit disheartened when I heard this broadcast, as I will be turning 50 in a few weeks and wonder if my glory days (were there any of these?) are behind me, especially when now--in my 22nd year in the classroom--I am so absorbed with embarking on planning for a second portion of my career journey--one related to knitting in some still-nebulous shape or fashion.  But the woman whom I met at the party yesterday, my authoress neighbor, another close friend, an English teacher, too (who went through bankruptcy and divorce in her 70s, relocated, and now teaches at a community college in Florida), along with so many other people I know, negate his theories.  What is a "peak year"?  A person may experience a brilliant year professionally, but things on the home front might be sub par.  Bridget Jones sums up this idea brilliantly.  During a time when she is in a blissful Mark-Darcy-induced fog, her mother spoils this contentment by candidly sharing tales of her extramarital escapades, and Bridget states,  "It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another falls spectacularly to pieces."  

Perhaps I don't need to fall into Bridget's cynical mindset, but nor do I need to subscribe to the philosopher's peak year presumption.  Perhaps all we can ask for is a Touch of Grace here and there, moments of joy and contentment that come to us at unanticipated times and in unforeseen places, times we view ourselves as successes at life, no matter our age. My latest knitting pattern, while simple to knit up, is entitled "Touch of Grace," in homage to these moments. 

I knit this up using Universal Uptown Worsted.  I typically shy away from acrylic yarns, but I have to say that this particular yarn definitely helped to dissuade me from holding onto my negative perceptions about synthetic fibers.  This yarn has none of the stiff or artificially shimmering characteristics of big-box-store acrylics.  I chose it because the color matched well with the Wicked Fur, also a yarn from Universal. Going against my natural-fiber-loving nature, I have to say that the synthetic yarn is very soft against one's neck--perfect for a cowl.  

Click HERE for a link to the pattern PDF.  


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Silent Night

Wouldn't it be nice if the weeks leading up to Christmas were, as they should be, a time of quiet contemplation? Each year, by the time that Christmas Day arrives I am exhausted and/or sick and am burdened by a horrific sense of guilt that, once again, I have allowed myself to be completely sucked in by holiday mania--so  artificial and contrived but so impossible to escape.  So here it is--Christmas Eve--and I need to finally stay in, sit by the fire and attempt to achieve some sort of balance. 

December has been a month of to-do lists, ones that included a demanding self-imposed schedule of Christmas knitting projects to complete.   Here are some activities in which I've engaged over the past four or five weeks:  

Prepped  students for final exams and angsted about new teacher evaluation system that ties my salary to student performance.

Graded a class set of English III novel project essays (that had languished in my briefcase, traveling to school and home,  for an embarrassingly amount of time--longer than Advent).

Finished organizing and marking odds and ends of late work, make-up work from absences, and three sets of journal entries related to A Tale of Two Cities that were shared with me via Google Drive by 37 students who used a variety of numbering systems and titles.  It took me roughly a month to unravel the complex web of digital documents.  

Cooked an enormous Brussels sprouts and Swiss cheese casserole for faculty Christmas party.  Also made a smaller dish of potatoes au gratin (so as not to alienate co-workers with aversions to strong-tasting cruciferous vegetables).

Shopped for a gift for faculty Christmas party.  After much indecision found a pretty glass carafe.  While I watched co-workers enjoy their candy, new umbrella, gift cards, etc. I walked away from the party with a pair of plastic glasses with mustache attached!  Have decided that Christmas gift party games bring out the pouty child in me and must be avoided next year.

Shopped for and altered a suit the night before my thirteen-year-old's drama performance at school.  The confidence teens have that all will turn out well--despite procrastinating--is awe inspiring!

James does look quite dashing, but, of course, I'm biased.

Made a Miss Marple scarf for suit-wearing son's drama teacher.  

Finished a baby sweater for my niece's new baby girl, born November 30, and mailed it along with some blankets I'd made.  Finished another sweater for same baby for Christmas gift.

I enjoyed playing around with the embroidery settings on my sewing machine.  

This Feather and Fan Baby Sweater pattern is available free from Lion Yarn.  I was pleased with the results.

Finished design for my Deep Gap Neck Wrap, knit it up, had a photo shoot with a friend's daughter to show off my creation.  Then I began another design for a tam.  Hope to publish this pattern in January.

Danny took a moment to play the piano in the restaurant where I
photographed her in the scarf.

I'm working on a pattern for a beret.  I worked out the chart on my computer, when
I should have been grading essays!

Knit two men's hats using yarn that comes plied with filaments of reflective tape.  Hope recipients have some outdoor nighttime activities planned that involve navigating traffic!

I wrapped up the hats before remembering to photograph them.  I made them
longer than the hat shown, so that the bottom has a folded-up cuff and omitted the
pom pom.  (I didn't think my male recipients would like that feature.)

Finished the 19th-century costume I'd been working on for a co-worker to wear while delivering a monologue in the guise of abolitionist John Brown's son during exam review week.    Wrote article for school website about his presentation.  Click HERE to read.

Social studies teacher Ted Gehring had the students mesmerized by his entertaining
and well-researched performance.  

Making the shirt with the pleated linen placket was a new challenge
for me.  

Made the final payment to the National Board Teaching Certification folks, so that I could receive the instructions for renewing my National Board Teaching license.  Subsequently spent hours visiting big-box stores while deciding whether or not to buy a video camera to use to film my class.  Did not purchase and, therefore, attempted to use somewhat outdated school-owned camera and ended up with poor sound quality, and, when trying to use a program to fix sound issues, ending up losing over an  hour of video.  Had a student film another class with her own camera and ended up with some good stuff from a discussion about 1984.  (Have to edit some stuff out, though.  My reviewers might not like the teen humor and some candid questions about the reading content.)

Quickly knit a shawl using bulky yarn for a friend's birthday celebration.  

My friend Elizabeth and I at her birthday party.  She looks gorgeous!

Finished knitting an alpaca cowl for another friend.

I bought the kit to make this cowl two years ago at Vogue Knitting Live.  

Finally finished knitting and grafted together a Nexus Cowl for my mother (after studying a Youtube video about head-to-head grafting).  Got that present in the mail today!

Made some pecan turtles using Emeril Lagasse's recipe.  Didn't cook the caramel long enough, so now have some sticky clusters to serve to guests.

I added a dollop of chocolate to the top of each of these but was too harried to take good photographs of my finished products.  

Made a cheesecake this morning but inadvertently followed the first half of a recipe for a no-bake, different type of cheesecake!  Decided to improvise and combine two recipes.  Threw in some white chocolate chips for good measure!  Maybe the chocolate along with some raspberry jam slathered on top will cover some sins.

I need to read this blog post next year--maybe in October . . . as a cautionary tale.  There's still a little bit of school break left, though, and tonight the twelve days of Christmas officially begin.  

As I sit here with candles lit and Christmas hymns playing in the background, trying to make my mind transcend everyday cares, I wish everyone the Christmas peace and joy that seems so elusive during this busy season.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Free Pattern for Quick Christmas Knitting: Cozy Neck Wrap

After much experimentation and some struggling with math details, I have a pattern for my Deep Gap Neck Wrap that is ready for publication. I learned a lesson about swatching from this experience.   I'd originally skipped the swatching step and raced full steam ahead, knitting my first version using Debbie Stoller Full o' Sheep.  While this yarn, which is a little heavier than typical worsted weight and looks and feels a lot like roving, did make a warm, thick winter accessory, I learned that I really should have used bigger needles and adjusted the pattern I'd written, so that the lace design wouldn't be lost in thick, somewhat tightly knitted stitches.   

I decided that a worsted weight would probably work better--and  would create an accessory that would be a little lighter and, hence, suited to a variety of climates.  Before my second attempt, I did the grown-up thing and knit and blocked a gauge swatch using Universal Yarn's Deluxe Worsted. After working up this garment in a relatively short time--an experienced knitter can complete this item within a week and still go to work and complete a few other tasks every day--I washed it in the bathtub and loved the way that this yarn retained its vivid hue but opened up and softened so nicely.

So the pattern as it is now written really works the best with a worsted weight yarn. Universal does, however, make a vivid "Hot Fuchsia" hue for those who prefer my first color choice (shown in my blog post last week).  I used a provisional cast-on and worked two identical pieces and grafted them together using a three-needle bind-off--employing a size 10 needle for this process worked great and made this sometimes tedious operation a bit easier to execute.  A knitter could just as easily, however, use a long-tail cast on and sew the two pieces together when they're completed.   The seam is located at the back of the neck and the draping of the scarf hides it well, either way you work the join.  One end of the scarf fits nicely inside a "gap" in the other, so that the scarf stays on and the wearer doesn't have to worry about adjusting it. 

I enlisted the daughter of a close friend to model my garment.  Since we had torrential rain yesterday, I needed to find an inside location--a perfect excuse to stop by Cafe Monte, a French restaurant and coffee bar, and indulge in a cup of cappuccino and some rich gooey cheese fondue.  The cafe offered a cozy respite from the teaming rain and insane jumble of mad holiday drivers outside.  I hope the neck wrap offers a similar cozy escape from the season's chill  weather.    

The knitter must knit into the bumps on the crochet chain to create a provisional cast on.  Use a different colored yarn for your chain.  

Here is what a provisional cast on should look like. The blue is the crochet chain.  The fuchsia is the scarf color.  

Click HERE for the free pattern download.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Chopping Away at Castles in the Air

Christmas can have a real melancholy aspect, 'cause it packages itself as this idea of perfect family cohesion and love, and you're always going to come up short when you measure your personal life against the idealized personal lives that are constantly thrust in our faces, primarily by TV commercials.
                                                                         Dan Savage

I have always had a problem with idealism.  I'm not talking about the fancy philosophical school of thought, but, rather the type defined by as "the act or practice of envisioning things in an ideal form." For me, this character weakness has manifested itself in the following ways: imagining the perfect wedding day, dreaming of how my baby boys would one day behave in the tender fashion of Little Lord Fauntleroy, and concocting perfect plans for the holidays—replete with exquisite food, artful decorations, and bonhomie all around.  Of course, life always has other plans—the wearing-a-long-sleeved-dress-with-Scarlet O'Hara-billows-of-petticoats-on-the-99-degrees-no-air-conditioning-in-the-church  nuptial day, the irreverent, messy sons, and the Christmases which somehow typically end up with my nursing a bout  of flu or at best coping with  general end-of-semester malaise. 

But hope waxes eternal.  Inspired by sentimental novels and holiday television shows, I’d always envisioned a family trip to the mountains to cut down a Christmas tree (an act similar to one lovingly performed each year by the Waltons).  Even though the Walton children do squabble a bit about the inclusion of a bird's nest on their tree, their holiday experiences were still magic and inspirational to me as a child:  the snow, the lovingly hewn evergreen, the Baldwin sisters’ childish frivolity, the African American country church Christmas pageant, the humble scarves knit by Mrs. Walton, the turkey stealing Robin Hood of Walton Mountain, the missionary ladies who bring presents to the “heathens,” the father’s magical appearance laden with a bag of gifts (including, of course, John Boy’s writing tablets), gifts presented after many stress-filled hours the family spends waiting for the missing patriarch’s  return.  Such is the stuff of dreams . . . .

Shaped by such visions I informed my sons that we would have a “family day” the Friday following Thanksgiving.  Even though my husband and I had several times that week, in the presence of my sons, discussed taking my long-awaited trip to find a tree, they seemed oblivious to our destination on Friday morning when we pushed and prodded and ultimately commanded them to get up and dressed.  Unlike the “normal” parents of my older son’s friends, my family lacks a large comfortable SUV replete with Big Gulp drink holders and IPod plug-ins.  I’m a bit proud of our economy, but after two-and-a-half hours in a nine-year-old Volkswagen Jetta with my boys breathing down my neck, conformity and higher fuel bills didn't seem too unappealing. 

From the peace piercing yelling, such as, “You pig.  You sneezed all over me,” to the wise affirmations, such as “Sarcasm is a sign of intelligence.  Only smart people understand it,” my husband and I were presented with a solid dose of teenager behavior at its worse.  All of this was of course coupled with general intermittent wailing and carping and gnashing of teeth about having to drive so far (about 115 miles), along with discussions of what “normal” people were doing that day:  attending Black Friday sales at Best Buy or spending a beach weekend at Hilton Head that included a stop at Paula Deen’s restaurant in Savannah (activities engaged in by my older son’s friends). 

After a surprisingly pleasant lunch at the homey mountainside Mason Jar Grill (decorated with photographs of bootleggers and their moonshine-running cars), my boys, eased up a bit.  Perhaps the hundreds of Christmas tree-laden SUVs and trucks they observed driving in the opposite direction, back to the Charlotte area, helped to divest them of the notion that their parents were freaks (at least in the Christmas-tree-obtaining department), or maybe they were just plumb tuckered out.  They actually seemed to enjoy seeking out a tree—a mini tabletop one for our mini car and mini house—but by that point I just wanted to get back home and pour a tall glass of wine.  Thankfully we didn’t actually have to cut the tree down ourselves, but we did have to wave a large pole back and forth—like some desperate SOS signal—to gain the attention of chainsaw-bearing tree farm employees, most of whom were busy helping customers in other locales—not in the “under-five-feet section.”  Ultimately, after navigating an obstacle course of small children, a massive draft-horse-drawn wagon, designer dogs in holiday attire, and enormous SUVS and pick-ups, I was able to turn my Volkswagen around on a narrow dirt road with sheer drop offs on either side and head to the highway.

The fact that our mission was accomplished seem to reinvigorate the younger members of my family.  The bantering and bickering gained steam again.  But finally, our driveway appeared like some glittering object of an epic quest.  There I was.  Tired.  Disenchanted.  Divested of yet another idyllic dream.  But maybe the holidays coupled with viewing some Hallmark movies will rekindle some of my old naiveté.  Maybe in a few of weeks I’ll even feel like bringing the tree inside and decorating it.  

Despite one more addition to my store of disillusionment, the stressful day did lead to copious amounts of knitting, in an attempt to decompress. Another result of my Christmas tree trip is a pattern I was inspired to create.  I’ve lovingly, or maybe ironically, named it the “Deep Gap Neck Wrap,” for the location of the Christmas tree farm and a day that will live in my holiday memories. Here's a sneak peak of my creation. I'll post the pattern next week, after I've done some proofreading.  

I knit up this wrap, using some Debbie Stoller Full O' Sheep yarn that is almost like roving.
 I plan to knit another in worsted weight--it will be a little lighter.  
This swatch is done using Universal Deluxe Worsted.